Meditation May Help Ease Veterans’ PTSD Symptoms

Some veterans may experience a sharper decline in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with meditation-based therapy than with other forms of treatment, a recent study suggests.

Researchers randomly assigned 203 veterans with PTSD related to active military service to receive 12 weekly sessions of treatments based on meditation, or 12 weeks of sessions involving exposure to trauma, or to a control group that received only mental health education.

Researchers focused on what’s known as transcendental meditation, which involves closing the eyes and thinking of a mantra to help conjure a state of restful alertness that can help people feel calm and less stressed.

After the three months of treatment, 61 percent of the veterans in the meditation group experienced a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms, compared with 42 percent in the exposure therapy group and 32 percent in the health education group.

These results suggest that transcendental meditation should be among the treatment options offered to veterans, particularly if they don’t want to relive traumatic experiences as part of therapy, said lead study author Sanford Nidich of the Maharishi University of Management Research Institute in Fairfield, Iowa.

“Those who are concerned with having to relive their trauma experiences during therapy and as part of their “homework” may want to consider other evidence-based options,” Nidich said by email. “Transcendental meditation may be a viable option for patients who do not respond to exposure therapy or avoid trauma-focused treatment altogether.”

PTSD is a complex and difficult-to-treat disorder, affecting up to one in five military veterans, researchers note in Lancet Psychiatry. Previous research has raised the question of whether a non-trauma-focused treatment can be as effective as trauma exposure therapy in reducing PTSD symptoms.

Most of the veterans in the current study had very severe PTSD symptoms, predominantly from combat-related trauma. Slightly more than two-thirds of them continued to take medication for PTSD during the study.

Participants received group sessions for transcendental meditation and health education and individual sessions for trauma exposure therapy. Treatment also included daily exercises for veterans to do at home.

Other trials have found stronger results for trauma exposure therapy than participants experienced in the current study, the authors note.

One limitation of the study is that researchers only followed veterans for three months while they were in treatment, and it’s unclear whether results would be different with longer follow-up.

Even so, the results offer fresh evidence of the potential for veterans with PTSD to experience symptom relief without going through exposure therapy, said author of an accompanying editorial Vernon Anthony Barnes of Augusta University in Georgia.

“Exposure therapy does not work well for everyone and many find it difficult to purposely recall traumatic events, confront emotions, and let go of fears triggered by painful memories,” Barnes said by email.

While retelling traumatic experiences to a therapist may be stressful, it might help some veterans to develop coping skills that serve them well over time, Barnes noted.

“Prolonged exposure therapy instills confidence and a sense of mastery, and may improve aspects of daily functioning, increase the ability to cope with courage when facing stress, and improve the ability to discriminate safe and unsafe situations,” Barnes said.

SOURCE:  Lancet Psychiatry, online November 15, 2018.

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